Well of course the words matter

Matt Fueston is an Account Manager for Ellenbecker Communications, is responsible for new business development, and contributes as a staff writer.

A few weeks ago I read this article on PR Daily: “The statistic communications ‘experts’ keep getting wrong.” The author, Brad Phillips, debunks the common misinterpretation of the 7% Verbal/38% Voice/55% Visual rule. This is a “rule” that I’ve seen a lot in the last few years, quoted by “experts” telling me that the actual words I use are unimportant in comparison to the visuals and “intangibles” surrounding them. I’d like to respond from the perspective of common-sense and how this statistic relates to the work that those of us in agencies and corporate marketing departments do every day.

But first—the science.

What the famous study does and does not say

You’ve heard this, I’m sure. “Most communication is non-verbal. Words only account for about 7% of our communication. The rest is based on visual cues and tone of voice!” If you are a wordsmith, as many of us are, that statement is going to raise your hackles. You may take umbrage. It may even provoke your ire or get your dander up. (Isn’t English a great language?) But, you know, if Science says it’s so…

But it doesn’t. The article in PR Daily references the Dr. Albert Mehrabian page on Wikipedia, which offers a basic overview of the good doctor’s research, upon which these statistics are supposedly based. According to this source, in 1967 Dr. Mehrabian’s study concluded that “the three elements account differently for our liking for the person who puts forward a message concerning their feelings: words account for 7%, tone of voice accounts for 38%, and body language accounts for 55% of the liking.”

In other words, there is a very narrow application for this research.

On Dr. Mehrabian’s own website he explicitly states:

Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.

Of course, the original research has detractors even when properly applied and I am not competent to pass judgment on either the 1967 study or its critics. But even if we accept his findings, we are back to the importance of words in communication (see, I finally got back to my main topic!)

Words are our friends

Well, with one caveat—if they are properly used.

But as the video in the PR Daily article makes abundantly and humorously clear, good luck figuring out what a presenter or speaker is saying just from the way he or she looks, emotes or sounds. You’ll get some indications, sure. But you won’t know if your quota for the year is 1 million or 2 million unless you hear or read the actual words.

In my career, I estimate that I have presented or spoken in front of groups of from a half-dozen to a few hundred on at least a thousand occasions. I’ve had great and not-so-great experiences (we won’t talk about the time early in my career where I actually put one of the six county commissioners in the audience to sleep—the room was hot and stuffy.)

Where I’ve had bad experiences, it was because for one reason or another, I wasn’t “on.” That affected my demeanor, energy level and tone of voice. And sometimes I was dressed inappropriately—wearing a suit in front of a decidedly anti-suit crowd, for example. Obviously Voice and Visual do matter in a presentation, just as graphics, photography, layout and overall “tone” do in an article, brochure or ad. And whether you are delivering a message in person or in a printed or digital piece, both tone and visuals should match the actual words in your message.

But to over-stress these at the expense of the actual message—which is still in words, until we get that Telepathic Interface thing up and working—is foolish.

Try communicating to a drilling contractor how deep your rig will drill without the correct words, placed in the correct order. Or try explaining why a client’s air compressor is superior to the competition using just a photo.

As far as I am concerned, those who get paid to communicate a message clearly and skillfully do not have to worry about the 7%/38%/55% rule making their jobs obsolete any time soon.